Reflections on a memory

Reflections on a memory

Reflections on a memory

Last year I stumbled across the old Guest & Chrimes steelworks in Rotherham, part demolished in a wasteland behind the football ground. The site has inspired a number of paintings, and the first of these is Reflections on a memory. The painting is intended as a comment on the sense of loss and isolation that permeates Britains deindustrialising North and Midlands. The works arising from my visit to the site will form part of my next exhibition, Pathways, which will open in Gage Gallery in July.



The road we walked before

The road we walked before

The road we walked before

The world I grew up in was very different. Pre Reagan and Thatcher, shocked by the extremities of the 1939-45 conflict, and still remembering prewar economic depression, it seemed there was a consensus about the social duty of the State. Working, health and housing conditions were on the rise, as was disposable income. It was a time of great struggles, for race, sexuality and gender equality, and it seemed that there were great victories. Facsism had not been defeated but its greatest influence was on young football hooligans looking for a fight. Overseas travel had become much more affordable, and the world seemed to be opening out.

Fast forward to now, and all that I believed was happening seemed a falsehood. How short our memories, that we have allowed ourselves to turn against each other,  that we have allowed our democracies to be highjacked by naked self-interest, and that once more we see the return to the idealogy of the bully. How thin the facade of our humanity that to be Black, Gay, Lesbian, Trans, Disabled or simply a woman places us under threat once more, that to be from a different country invites suspicion and hostility. Do we really walk blindly through the world once more ignoring that which does not directly affect us, condoning hate by our lack of censure, content to benefit from the discomfort of others, indeed to celebrate that discomfort? Were we pretending all along?

At a recent party, I suggested that we could learn a lot about now by looking at our past. The notion was scathingly dismissed, after all history is manipulated by the victorious and hence unreliable. True, but while memories may be short, our understanding of the rise of totalitarianism in the 1920s and 30s has yet to be overwritten.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.

( Martin Niemoller 1946)


John Wilkinson – July 2018

The Wasteland of Your Desires


I viewed the news that the Republicans were threatening to withdraw from the Paris Accord  and dismantle or scrap the Environmental Protection Agency with some alarm, and more than a hint of concern about what this might mean. Of course, I understand these are moted actions, and yet to become real, and I understand that the people behind the moves are long time climate change deniers, a fact that I somewhat bizzarely find comforting.

Comforting may seem a strange word here. I chose it carefully, because even climate change deniers in the White House, bad though that undoubtably is, can be fought against. The alternative that reared its ugly  face in my mind when I heard the news was that the battle, even the war, has indeed been lost. That the environmental destruction we have wrought has meant that we have reached the tipping point, have squandered our ability to ameliorate our impact on our planet and are now gearing up to fight the resource wars that will surely be one result of the impact of global warming.

Now, I’m not a conspiracy theorist, I think there is enough that is evidently and indentifiably wrong with the way we coexist in the public and verifiable domain, and feel no need to go chasing after alternative facts. However, I do struggle to understand the existence of climate change deniers. There are vested interests in operation, but I doubt that an emerging technology would have enough backing to mean that 97% of scientists would support it’s attack on the fossil fuel industry, a long established and extremely powerful lobby. I do find it easier to believe that there is a recognition of how fragile the consumption/sustainability balance is, and a strategic difference of opinion about how to respond. It is my fear that the new administration have decided that global warming is a fait accompli, and are thus responding to it, giving up efforts to ameliorate against it, that inspired The Wasteland of Your Desires , another work in what I am starting to consider my Pathway Series.

Food for thought, but of course it is worth bearing in mind that conspiracy requires capacity. Far more likely that the cynical self-interest of Populism will lead to the same end, unwittingly. Still the same end though, these are worrying times.






Returning to rust


The decision to create a particular painting is a complex process. What am I trying to say; what is the best composition to get the point across without either labouring it, or drifting so far into the realms of the obscure that meaning becomes lost; how big should it be; is paint even the right medium? There are of course many answers to all these questions, and none are necessarily right (or wrong).

My reasons for painting Lost Motion are, I hope, evident in the work. My reasons for choosing the style, colour palette and subject are less complex. I delight in rust, in depicting it, and in all that it implies. Rust speaks of impermanence, of decay, of the inevitable return of matter to element, of a recognition that our works are but a tiny scratch upon the surface of one of an infinite number of planets in an infinite universe. It’s also fun to paint, a challenge to get right but so satisfying when it works.

The other elements in the work flowed from the rust. I wanted a sense of massiveness, and the 140 x 103cm dimensions of this work help with that. I wanted a sense of an abrupt stop, and the use of organic materials to both build surface and also refer to nature’s gradual reclamation work helped with that. Just as well, it is also a challenge to use painting knives on a 3D surface, and part of the process was learning to handle my new 8″ and 10″ bladed knives, a gift from my Sister 🙂 Finally, I needed a device that suggested a relationship between the figurative and landscape/Industrialscape elements of the painting. Without the viewer even knowing what the object represented in the work is, the rust provides the clue.

Lost Motion is the third of my explorations into using materials within a painting, the second piece I have done this year, and the first of a new series exploring the complexities of our position in and the potentials of the technological age. I hope you enjoy looking at it as much as I enjoyed painting it.

Playing with texture

The Difficult Path Back to You

The Difficult Path Back to You

December was a busy month, so I didn’t get round to my regular update. Went well though, I sold 7 paintings over three weeks, including my first sale in to a US buyer – thank you Gabriele in Florida 🙂 I spent most of it concentrating on studio/gallery admin work, and looking for venues in Scotland for the Arctic Convoys exhibition. I did manage to complete two new paintings though, and in both pushed my technique further.

I have been doing a lot of paperworks recently, and the backboard I use to support the paper on the easel is far from smooth. This shows as the knife is far more affected by surface than a brush, and I noticed some interesting paint effects as a result. I decided to experiment with recreating these effects on canvas, and returning to techniques I first used in the 1980’s I added sawdust  to the base primer as I was preparing the canvas. I then built up the surface with carefully placed wood shavings, and created a card mosiac to give the feel of cracked pavement. Great fun to do, an interesting challenge to then build colour with a palette knive. The Difficult Path… also uses aluminium shavings to suggest barriers. Getting these to adhere to the canvas was a major challenge.

Difficult Path - detail

Difficult Path – detail

I liked the detail shot so much that I used it as the basis for another piece, Aftermath, so titled because of its post apocalytic feel.This also uses grass and small twigs to create texture, and an old shoe was an effective means of applying some of the paint. I really enjoyed the process, and will use it again – one of the great joys of art for me lies in its development, every work teaches me something new, and I try not to stay in my comfort zone as I push ever harder to express myself.



Both paintings reflect my concerns as the world becomes ever more uncertain and extreme, it is ironic that my main body of work for the coming year focuses on a time when people of all ethnicities came together and gave their lives in the fight against a political belief whose rhetoric features increasingly strongly in our current political climate. Both paintings have their first public outing this January, in a group show of Midlands and South Yorkshire artists at Rotherham’s Old Market Galley (opening event Saturday 21st Jan), I look forward to hearing what people think of them.

Cheers and thank you for reading 🙂



Politics and Art

Fighting For Crumbs: The World Transformed @Black-e Liverpool

Fighting For Crumbs: The World Transformed @Black-e Liverpool

One result of the video we produced for Fighting For Crumbs (our recent joint show – with John Ledger, Corinne Deakin, Connor Matheson, Rebekah Whitlam, Jonathan Butcher) is that we were invited to participate in the World Transformed – the festival of Politics, Art & Culture that provided the fringe for the Labour Party conference in Liverpool this week. As you can imagine I was quite buzzed about this. Being invited to exhibit is always positive, being invited to show in a space that would see Jeremy Corbyn, Caroline Lucas, John McDonnell and Ken Loach speaking was amazing.

Our Corner of the World Transformed

Our Corner of the World Transformed

One result of the invite was that I got my work featured in Red Pepper, a Green/Left UK magazine – twice in print in two months, wow :), and of course neatly illustrating the subject of this blog.

Technicolour Nightmare in Red Pepper

Technicolour Nightmare in Red Pepper

We managed to put four installations, some of my paintings, one of John Ledgers drawings, and two of Jonathan Butchers poems in a neat little installation containing installations in one corner of the workshop/gallery area. We also managed to get more of mine, John’s and Connor’s work on the walls and divisions alongside the main thoroughfare into the area.

Whilst at the festival, I sat in on a panel session about Politics and Art. This could have been an interesting discussion but actually took the form of a series of presentations followed by Q&A sessions. This format limited the scope for exploration, as did the available time in a busy schedule of workshops, and so I thought I’d use this blog to look at the relationship that art and politics can have, and how this affects the ‘Art’ element.

The seminar was hosted by Natasha Josette from the Anti-PV group (of which more later). There were four presentations by practising political artists, (Jennifer Verson from Migrant Artists Mutual Aid (MAMA), Darren Cullen (Dismaland), Matt Bonner (Brandalism) and Momentum TV). The artists explained what their practice was, and what political aim they felt the work addressed. The first thing that struck me was that there was a gender difference in approach, both women on the panel talking of the value of using creativity to explore potential, rather than focus on making points about the dismal now. In constraint both the men on the panel utilised in your face approaches referencing the contradictions, hypocracies and wilful ignorance of the now.

Now, as someone who is fond of saying “I’ve got your point, where would you like me to stick it?” I have a lot of interest in the idea of art exploring what we could become, rather than being the mirror by which we examine ourselves. Momentum TV  has a focus on exploring the possibilities by encouraging local people to share their thoughts on their own communities and geographies. In doing so they facilitate the voices of so many who would otherwise be unheard. Clearly by involving larger groups of people directly in the production of art on this basis, it can facilitate a collective understanding of the world people would like to live in. I can see that this approach could be a powerful tool, but with the caveat that our idealised world is informed by the one in which we believe we live in. In consequence our collective imaginations are restricted by the prejudices, fears, and aspirations we associate with our internalised view of our current world. I was minded of this following a recent exhibition opening I went to, themed on exploring potentials, and led by women (sensing a pattern here). Part of this exhibition contained a document outlining the potential worlds revealed by a discussion with members of the public in York. Sadly, one of the ideal futures had the words ‘no chavs’ in its specifications, and at no point did money seem to dissappear from our future, both illustrating the point to which we are collectively restricted by our imaginations.

MAMA uses creativity at a practical level to campaign, support and engage with migrant women, and to enable them to engage with the wider community and have a voice while so doing. The focus is on both potential and reality, and creativity is used as a positive tool to bring people together, to share understanding and try to demolish myth. It can foster a sharing of experience that undermines the divisive rhetoric that we are daily fed. Participation in these activities can also help return a shred of dignity to those whose lives have become undignified through necessity not choice, and it is worth bearing in mind that one of the most political acts we can make as individuals is just this, the acknowledgement of another’s humanity, and the dignity that accompanies that status, regardless of circumstance. The impact of this should not be underestimated, people with a sense of dignity are more likely to be receptive to pro-social attitudes and even action.

The increasing evidence of a reaction against the constraints of politically correctness and the effective demonisation of the poor leaves the uncomfortable reality that many people have yet to “get the point” and face a barrage of tools designed to ensure that they don’t. The question is how art can address this. Both Darren Cullen and Brandalism’s direct action approach, subverting the language of advertising to expose the realities behind the public face of products/companys/attitudes is effective, immediate, and often relies on (albeit dark) humour. However, it’s also sometimes misunderstood, and Darren’s PTSD Acton Man figures, despite being endorsed by veterans for peace have come in for a lot of internet bile, some of it from what were respectable sources. This is art designed to evoke a specific response, and relies on its immediacy to work. How effective this can be at achieving cognitive change is open to question though, and I often wonder whether using humour de-emphasises the significance of its object to the point that though we can see how awful it is, we can also live with it because it’s funny?

Let me stress that I am not diminishing the importance of any of the approaches mentioned by highlighting the inevitable problems each faces. All these approaches in their own way show how art can be an effective political act and tool. The underpinning message of potentials is about art showing a brighter future rather than highlighting our dreadful present, this struck a chord and will force me to examine my own practice and output. I am however also interested in other approaches that through individual creativity (even as part of a collective) can address some of the caveats I have raised. There is also the thorny question of ‘Art’ to consider. Two members of the audience asked whether the panel saw a role for abstract or high art in political art, and one trotted out the time worn ‘the working classes don’t engage with art’ mantra, and this got me thinking.

Art, the process of holding a mirror up to the world, of using lies to tell the truth – or in these days of post-structuralism a collection of forms textures and colours that can mean whatever you want it to regardless of the artist’s intent – relies on engaging with and evoking a response in the viewer. Despite the post-structural paradigm, I stick to the idea that this is a designed response, and of course the techniques of Brandalism and Darren Cullen rely on their use of graphic design and advertising elements, which no-one doubts are designed to elicit a specific response, or what that response might be. The fact that they can misfire is an indiciation of the resistance to the designed response in the viewer. In this respect their obviousness may hasten the cognitive dissonance that often results when attempting to sway attitudes. On the other hand abstract and semi-abstract contemporary pieces with a vaguely dark undertone and vaguely suggestive titles abound in collections and galleries, as installations, films, sculpture and paintings. Many are beautiful and well executed pieces, but their intent is too elusive, the response they evoke too unfocused, for them to be effectively political.

For the would be political artist wishing to adapt their practice to the struggle there are a number of problems to be faced. The first of these is being seen. At a practical level, this means finding space to show which people will visit. Anti-PV (private view) seek to place works in public spaces and the art within the festival is an example of the approach. Here the volume of potential viewers hopefully offsets the low level of engagement, and it is more likely that work will reach the gaze of those who would not seek it out.

Being seen does not mean being digested. Conventional art forms often require contemplation to be appreciated, but we live in the culture of the soundbite, the tweet, the easily digested, easily consumed and easily discarded media of Warhol’s vision; Brandalism works well in this environment, perhaps too well, as the reactions to it seem often to be equally hasty, as though the image has gone in but the message has stumbled. High art perhaps lacks the hook to engage with people so far removed from its cultural referencing. The work of the political artist, in order to engage, must pay heed to the cultural references of the people it is aimed at, and here lies a harder task. To contradict the mantra, the working classes do engage with art and they produce it as well. Just like any other group what they engage with speaks to them and often of them. To do this it needs must reference their experiences, landscape (both physical and cultural) and circumstance. To be a true expression of the artist, that suggests that the artist needs to express themselves in those terms and frames of reference naturally, and if not from experience, from genuine empathy. It may be worth considering Anselm Kieffer’s work here, of which it is said that style is less important to the work than content. As artists we try to communicate, and it is on the effectiveness of the communication that the success of political art relies. It is also worth noting that it is not just the working classes that are the targets of political art, and that the same caveats apply when trying to for example evoke a response from someone in a comfortable circumstance.

The biggest problem by far though lies in to what end the work is being produced. Is it to make a specific point, or to sow the seeds that will lead to the viewer acheiving that realisation by themselves?  In terms of cognitive effect, the latter, whilst slower, is far more effective. It is also far harder to achieve, unlikely to lead to artistic plaudits, or pecunary success. None of these are reasons for not trying.

. I would welcome feedback and discussion on anything I’ve raised in this, and thankyou if you have read this far 🙂